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A Battlefield Death, 1944
An estimated total of 416,800 members of Armerica's fighting forces lost their lives in battle during World War II. The following account records the death of one: Captain Henry T. Waskow, who sacrificed his life during combat with German troops in the hills of southern Italy in the early days of 1944.
We know little of Captain Waskow beyond the circumstances of his death. We don’t know what his hopes and dreams were, although it is certain he had them. We don’t know anything about his background or what motivated him to abandon his civilian life and take up a weapon in defense of his country. We don’t know what circumstances placed him on a mountain in Southern Italy where an enemy bullet found its target and ended his life.
What we do know about Captain Waskow is that his death is emblematic of all those American fighting men who lost their lives in defense of their country. We also know that we, the members of succeeding generations, owe a tremendous debt to him and to his fellow soldiers who gave the supreme sacrifice to assure that we could continue to live in freedom.
"They laid him on the ground in the shadow of the stone wall alongside the road."
Ernie Pyle was a syndicated newspaper reporter who focused his columns from the war front on the common soldier. In this dispatch from the front lines in southern Italy he focuses on death in combat:
"January 10, 1944
In this war I have known a lot of officers who were loved and respected by the soldiers under them. But never have I crossed the trail of any man as beloved as Captain Henry T. Waskow, of Belton, Texas.
Captain Waskow was a company commander in the Thirty-sixth Division. He had led his company since long before it left the States. He was very young, only in his middle twenties, but he carried in him a sincerity and a gentleness that made people want to be guided by him.
‘After my father, he came next,’ a sergeant told me.
‘He always looked after us,’ a soldier said. ‘He'd go to bat for us every time.’
‘I've never known him to do anything unfair,’ another said.
I was at the foot of the mule trail the night they brought Captain Waskow down. The moon was nearly full, and you could see far up the trail, and even partway across the valley below.
Dead men had been coming down the mountain all evening, lashed onto the backs of mules. They came lying belly-down across the wooden pack-saddles, their heads hanging down on one side, their stiffened legs sticking out awkwardly from the other, bobbing up and down as the mules walked.
The Italian mule skinners were afraid to walk beside dead men, so Americans had to lead the mules down that night. Even the Americans were reluctant to unlash and lift off the bodies when they got to the bottom, so an officer had to do it himself and ask others to help.
I don't know who that first one was. You feel small in the presence of dead men, and you don't ask silly questions.
They slid him down from the mule, and stood him on his feet for a moment. In the half-light he might have been merely a sick man standing there leaning on the others. Then they laid him on the ground in the shadow of the stone wall alongside the road. We left him there beside the road, that first one, and we all went back into the cowshed and sat on water cans or lay on the straw, waiting for the next batch of mules.
Somebody said the dead soldier had been dead for four days, and then nobody said anything more about it. We talked soldier talk for an hour or more; the dead man lay all alone, outside in the shadow of the wall.
Then a soldier came into the cowshed and said there were some more bodies outside. We went out into the road. Four mules stood there in the moonlight, in the road where the trail came down off the mountain. The soldiers who led them stood there waiting.
‘This one is Captain Waskow,’ one of them said quietly
Two men unlashed his body from the mule and lifted it off and laid it in the shadow beside the stone wall. Other men took the other bodies off. Finally, there were five lying end to end in a long row. You don't cover up dead men in the combat zones. They just lie there in the shadows until somebody comes after them.
The unburdened mules moved off to their olive grove. The men in the road seemed reluctant to leave. They stood around, and gradually I could sense them moving, one by one, close to Captain Waskow's body. Not so much to look, I think, as to say something in finality to him and to themselves. I stood close by and I could hear.
One soldier came and looked down, and he said out loud, ‘God damn it!’
That's all he said, and then he walked away
Another one came, and he said, ‘God damn it to hell anyway!’ He looked down for a few last moments and then turned and left.
Another man came. I think he was an officer. It was hard to tell officers from men in the dim light, for everybody was bearded and grimy. The man looked down into the dead captain's face and then spoke directly to him, as though he were alive, ‘I'm sorry, old man.’
Then a soldier came and stood beside the officer and bent over, and he too spoke to his dead captain, not in a whisper but awfully tenderly, and he said, ‘I sure am sorry, sir.’
Then the first man squatted down, and he reached down and took the captain's hand, and he sat there for a full five minutes holding the dead hand in his own and looking intently into the dead face. And he never uttered a sound all the time he sat there.
Finally he put the hand down. He reached over and gently straightened the points of the captain's shirt collar, and then he sort of rearranged the tattered edges of the uniform around the wound, and then he got up and walked away down the road in the moonlight, all alone.
The rest of us went back into the cowshed, leaving the five dead men lying in a line end to end in the shadow of the low stone wall. We lay down on the straw in the cowshed, and pretty soon we were all asleep."
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